Many stories about Ishi have been told since then, and many of them were sensationalized. But Kayla Carpenter, a doctoral student in linguistics at U.C. Berkeley and a Hoopa Valley Tribal member, has heard the Indian peoples’ stories of Ishi: of his commitment to his traditions, of how he bravely resisted assimilation despite his isolation. These stories tell of a peaceful man whose kind heart and belief in the Yahi way proved unwavering in the face of his people’s genocide.
So when Carpenter first saw the university’s stage production of Ishi: The Last Yahi, which, in a melding of fact and fiction, depicts Ishi as a baby killer, an incestuous rapist and a batterer, she wept.
During a talk-back with the playwright, John Fisher, in March, Carpenter, an insightful and measured student, was so distraught she couldn’t summon the words to speak. “Ishi was a teacher when he came here, he taught people something about California and indigenous culture,” Carpenter explains. “To tell his story in this way does a disservice to him and to all the California Native people who live today who have survived the genocide.”
Following the beginning of the Gold Rush in 1849, people in California waged a campaign of extermination against Indian tribes, which included a law that made it legal to take Indian children as indentured servants and militias were paid by the government to kill Indians—$5 a scalp. Ishi’s tribe, the Yahi band of the Yana, had suffered heavy losses from attacks by white settlers, and his family had been flushed from their homes and pushed into hiding by the time he was born, which was probably in the early 1860s.
Fisher says he combined creative writing and archival research to draw attention to this California genocide, but the March performances of his play sent a shock wave through the California Indian community that led to an ongoing and sometimes emotionally charged dialogue about the ethics of creating art, the complexity of telling another culture’s story and the lingering wounds of California’s ugly history.